We pay a great deal of attention to innovation and sing its praises. But actually the road to creation, improvement and acceptance is messy and full of pitfalls. Innovation is often hard to recognize and to assign value, at first. More often than not, its introduction doesn’t live up to everyone’s expectations. But still it leaps forward, gracefully or not. I think it’s worth considering innovation more closely, given my own trials of bringing software to market, as well as watching the current industry public opinion mêlée regarding crowdsourcing.
Innovation promises great leaps forward. It offers hopeful and seemingly wondrous shortcuts and economies to everything it touches. It’s a new way, maybe audaciously conceived, and often tricky to execute. It’s also a fundamental pedestal for all we do. And many of us, if we are perseverant and lucky, are actually in the business of being innovative. But innovation always faces initial rejection. It’s just part of the deal.
There’s the promise of dramatic improvement, the skepticism, disappointment and persistence that we find so addicting. So I think it’s worth the time dissecting that process a bit, so we can all benefit a bit more from understanding the inventor, while bringing ourselves forward in ways we can apply to our professional and personal lives.
Great Leaps and Incremental Improvements
I recently read an article that proclaimed a requirement to call something an innovation is a 10x improvement in a process, expense or service. I rather like the idea of putting a numerical value on innovation, as it sets a target standard to be aiming for. I can ask, does my product provide that 10x improvement? That’s a demanding figure! However I don’t think you can discount innovation that isn’t as startling.
Some innovations, think of the printing press and more recently the internet, offer astronomical gains in productivity and information access across society. Going to the library to research has become a quaint activity, with power usurped from librarians everywhere. The internet becomes our personal assistant, advertising vehicle and even a translator. That doesn’t mean incremental improvements aren’t important either. Actually, I think the two are implicitly married, and that one doesn’t persist towards adoption without the other. Broadly applied innovation has an ecosystem of technologies, users and materials. For example, improvements in virus protection probably don’t have a 10x multiplier on internet use, but they do have a cumulative effect on browsing behavior of the people who adapt that protection. Think of the distinction in terms of game changing, and solving serious pitfalls. Both are important to success and adaptation.
Now it also seems that with innovation, you also necessarily encounter a sociological refusal that I’m saying you must overcome to be optimally successful. An example from my mid 90’s past we’d consider small minded now is needing to lobby a particular VP to grant internet access to sales people to help them research customers sites. The establishment fear was that people would spend all day surfing inappropriate sites that would take away from productivity. I can’t imagine an information technology company in that science-focused business applying that same reasoning any longer.
People, particularly from my generation or older, discount social media and blogging, but it’s actually a fairly effective and potent form of circulating news – yes many may not want all the minutia that comes with it, but it can be used quite powerfully and personally when used well.
In a more pedestrian example, I often hear about how code analysis tools won’t work, particularly applied to internationalization, even when there’s apparent proof in project and customer success that they do. I consider it a badge of honor that a leading localization company featured in their blog how internationalization tools are a myth. They all but called out my company’s product by name. Yet an open mind and some actual research or even a phone call would have shown more of an embrace of the possibility of improvements that actually help the whole industry. People are all too happy to kill off innovation without a serious thought or investigation based on their experiences in the past. In other words, past attempts were unsuccessful before, so we’ll assume nothing could have changed. The blog post even sited products that have been extinct for years as evidence. Small example but this is how reactionary thinking plays out in management efforts that can potentially be damaging in an information industry routed in advancing technologies and development methods.
Where Innovation Comes From
I haven’t noticed a clear path to an innovation process, but what I do know is that ideas are common, good ideas are rare and good ideas followed with action are rarer still. A dynamic individual may have or come across what many would feel is a good idea, about 4 to 8 times per year – some people much more, some less. Ideas are always fun and exciting to me, but I confess to only following up on a few. The rest of creativity goes into tweaking current projects, or reading and learning and bringing those ideas into everyday activities.
Since there isn’t really any value in a creative or innovative idea without follow-through, there is nothing wrong and everything to gain by running with someone else’s innovative idea or improvement. You just have to keep an open mind to where it may come from.
Big ideas can come from the top down or bottom up. But incremental improvements more typically come from your everyday users or developers living with a product every day.
For instance, an ongoing challenge for us in our Globalyzer product, is that when our clients first apply it to perform static analysis on their code, they often end up with what we refer to as false positive results. That is, the product will flag internationalization errors, and in particular embedded strings, which may be programmatic elements such as debug statements or database queries. We developed rules based filters and a back end database to minimize, catch and tag them, but they typically need some adaptation and customization for each code base. That’s fine and to be expected and managed, and even a strength of the system, but what if there was another way?
And in fact a Jr. Programmer/intern working at my company doing a lot of code scanning for service projects made a simple remark, “what if we compared those strings to an actual dictionary? That would tell us quite a bit about the nature of the string just based on content, rather than programmatic rules.” It was a very good idea and one of our architects adapted it to make it real. By the time you are reading this, this improvement will have been released in our software. The young programmer is back in school and has moved on, but his good idea is about to become a real part of our product.
Innovation Devalues Everything it Touches
By its very nature, innovation puts either a person or process out of work. It wouldn’t be worth anything if it didn’t make someone more productive with less. At the same time, the first rounds of innovation are typically full of pitfalls that need to be overcome.
The immediate case that comes to mind is the current brouhaha over crowdsourcing. In case you haven’t attended LocalizationWorld, read up on industry happenings, or participated in numerous LinkedIn discussions, Crowdsourcing is either a great evil or the most innovative thing that’s happened in our industry in a while, or something in between. There are complaints about the very concept, the devaluing of translator expertise and what some people feel is an inferior end result produced by enthusiastic, but naive, volunteers willing to work for accolades alone. Others, notably at Facebook, feel it’s a process that results in faster, cheaper translations at a higher quality. It’s not hard to find evidence supporting both sides, and I suppose at the moment final judgment on immediate results may not be the relevant criteria. More likely the industry could potentially have something to gain using the technologies for rendering translations in context with application pages, rather than the contextless traditional table view. These tools can be applied to more traditional translation resources, while also gaining a better linguistic review platform and buy-in from in-country clients and employees – who are after all, the real stakeholders and judges in a localization effort. But that’s just my understanding of it, and I may be overlooking something. Certainly there’s a long way to go, but I wouldn’t be caught on the side of belittling the persistent follow-through of dedicated people bringing ideas into reality and adding enhancements to overcome pitfalls.